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Spike Lee
Spike Lee

Spike on Spike

Lee opens up on career, upbringing

Web posted on: Monday, May 11, 1998 2:41:55 PM EDT

NEW YORK (CNN) -- Film director Spike Lee is a man of few words. He prefers to speak through his work: films, videos, commercials. Lee has made 12 films in the past 12 years and all have been critical or commercial successes. His most recent effort, "He Got Game," debuted at the top of the box office two weekends ago.

CNN's Beverly Schuch spoke with Lee recently about his career, and what makes him tick.

Lee talks about...

  • Producing commercials

  • The challenge of being a black filmmaker

  • His father remarrying after his mother's death

  • His upbringing

  • BEVERLY SCHUCH, HOST OF CNN'S "PINNACLE": Being that you are writer, director, often a star in your movies, can you ever stop editing the project? Are you ever happy with what's completed?

    SPIKE LEE, WRITER-DIRECTOR OF "HE GOT GAME": Well, I'm happy. I'm not a compulsive type of person that, you know, have to keep tinkering with stuff, you know? When I feel it's done it's done and then we just move on to the next thing.

    SCHUCH: How has your definition of success changed over the years?

    LEE: I have never really measured success by box office. I always felt that it was more in line with did I put on screen what I visualized when I was writing the project. That's how I feel artists are measured.

    Lee Director
    Lee's directed 12 movies, but commercials are his bread and butter

    Lee on producing commercials ...

    SCHUCH: What's the appeal of doing commercials (for the National Hockey League)?

    LEE: Well, the appeal to me was ownership. Before when I was doing commercials I was just a hired hand, a hired gun. When they needed a director, they would call me. But now, I own 51 percent of this joint venture between myself and DDB Needham.

    SCHUCH: So far let's look at the success of your company. In the first year you had $2 million profit on billings of $35 million.

    LEE: It sounds about right.

    SCHUCH: But you know the criticism that you've gotten. Some of the harshest criticism you've got have been from Burrell's, the largest black-owned agency. They say that it's an unfair advantage. Are you using your stardom, your star power at an unfair advantage to the struggling black agencies who've been working all along?

    LEE: First of all, what country is this? What country do we live in? You're not answering my question.

    SCHUCH: America.

    LEE: If Coke does something to Pepsi, are they worrying about what's fair or what's not fair? This is America. This is about business. Since when does fairness come into play? So where does this whole thing come where because Spike Lee, if I develop position in this world where I could pick up a phone and call somebody and use that ... I'm a bad guy because that's not fair?

    On the challenge of being a black filmmaker ...

    SCHUCH: It hasn't gotten easier for you?

    LEE: It's still very hard to get a film made, because studios are looking for a certain type of film that is star-driven, that has to make at least $100 million. They're big event movies. And if you want to do something that isn't necessarily in that order, then it's tough.

    SCHUCH: What would you like to do?

    LEE: I still would love to do the Jackie Robinson story, but as of yet we've been unable to get the money.

    SCHUCH: You've often gone to other African-Americans for...

    LEE: We just did it twice.

    SCHUCH: To Oprah and to...

    LEE: We did that for "Malcolm X" with Warner Brothers, who tried to jerk us and for the film "Get On the Bus." That film was financed solely by 15 African-American men, people like Johnnie Cochran, Will Smith, Wesley Snipes.

    SCHUCH: How many of your films have given a return back?

    LEE: I think they've all at least broke even. I don't think any of them have lost money.

    SCHUCH: Well, "Get On the Bus," though, that was what, a $2.8 million film?

    LEE: Yes.

    SCHUCH: But it disappeared awfully fast.

    LEE: That happens when people don't show up.

    SCHUCH: As a filmmaker, your work has been almost more scrutinized than anybody's.

    LEE: Oliver Stone beats me out probably.

    Lee is also an avid sports fan

    SCHUCH: What do you do with all the comments and all the things that are said about your movies?

    LEE: Well, maybe I'm wrong but I always felt that it was a critic's job to comment on the work that's on the screen. But in my case, a lot of times they talk about everything but that. And I think that's a disservice to the actors, to the technicians because they're not reviewing the work in a lot of cases. They're reviewing what their perception of Spike Lee is. But judge the films, you know? Judge the films, what's on screen.

    SCHUCH: You are held to this kind of double standard in a lot of ways and you are, perhaps, the only African-American director who can get a film made ...

    LEE: Wait a minute ...

    SCHUCH: ... regardless of whether it makes money or not.

    LEE: Well, I think I've been very fortunate but I can get a film made. But then you should put an asterisk next to that. I can get a film made for a certain price.

    On his father remarrying after his mother's death ...

    SCHUCH: Do you think there'll ever be a resolution with your father getting remarried again, and to a white woman?

    LEE: My problem was not with my father marrying a white woman, it was the fact that any, that's just a universal thing. The children, universally, they don't get along with a stepmother especially, in the amount of time that it happened.

    SCHUCH: How fast did it happen?

    LEE: It was like less than a year. So, I mean...

    SCHUCH: That's hard.

    LEE: I mean I think that's asking a lot to put on any children for the transition. They're still not getting over the loss. It wasn't that bad for me. I mean it was bad, but I (was) 21, but my other siblings were still kind of young. And so they're still grieving. And so it's not the fact that this lady is white; (it's) the fact that there's another lady in here, period.

    SCHUCH: That is tough.

    LEE: You know, that's the thing.

    SCHUCH: But they're still together?

    LEE: Yes. And they're married.

    Lee on his upbringing ...

    SCHUCH: Which among your films do you think is perhaps the most autobiographical?

    LEE: Oh, it's "Crooklyn."

    SCHUCH: Because?

    LEE: It's based upon a family, African-American family growing up the late '60s, early '70s in Brooklyn, New York.

    SCHUCH: Your name was Shelton Jackson Lee? Who gave you the name Spike?

    LEE: My mother.

    SCHUCH: Is it a close family?

    LEE: At times. But my grandmother and I are very close.

    SCHUCH: And is it a pretty middle class, was it pretty middle class growing up?

    LEE: Well, we were, had middle class education but not necessarily have middle class income because my father is a jazz musician and, you know, he never really made a lot of money.

    SCHUCH: And your mother worked?

    LEE: Yeah, she worked. She had to.

    SCHUCH: But you said it was an artistic upbringing, there was a lot of goings-on in the house.

    LEE: Yeah, music and going to the theater and movies, all that stuff.

    SCHUCH: What kind of influence was your mother on your life?

    LEE: Oh, she was a great influence. You know, my father was kind of laid back but my mother was the one that would stay on us.

    SCHUCH: What did she give you?

    LEE: Oh, she gave me my get-up-and-go, my drive.

    SCHUCH: I know she died when you were 21.

    LEE: I was 20. I was a sophomore at Morehouse in Atlanta.

    SCHUCH: Cancer is a hard death. Do you have some remembrance of her that you keep?

    LEE: Periodically I look at the letters she would write me when I was away at Morehouse. I have those.

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